UP is Pixar’s tenth feature film. That’s a heck of an accomplishment for what was once considered an experimental studio, one that has since become the crown jewel of the Disney Empire.
No one knows this more than director Peter Docter (Monsters, Inc.), the second person hired by John Lasseter (now creative chief of the entire Magic Kingdom).
“It never gets easier,” admits Docter. “There are always new ways that the story conspires to trick us, to fool us into thinking we have the right solution. It's only with a lot of reworking—and reworking and reworking—that you get good stuff.
“We still don’t know everything, but we allow ourselves to make mistakes. As (Pixar co-founder) Ed Catmull says, ‘if you don’t make mistakes, you’re not taking enough risks.’ I hope we never think of ourselves as experts—we learn something new on every film.”
And what has Docter learned on this movie?
“For me personally, what makes a film worth watching is when you go home and you’re still thinking about it,” says Docter. “You leave the theater and you’re still thinking about it not only the next day, but the next year. In order to have a film affect you that way, it has to have real true emotion and resonate in some way with your own life. So even though the stars of the film may be monsters or bugs, you identify with those characters on the screen and you understand what they’re going through. It’s important to have that foundation of real truth and an emotional attachment to the characters.”
But let’s let everyone in on a little secret. The main reason for their success isn’t their extraordinary way of staying one step technologically ahead of the competition, even though Up will unveil Pixar’s own 3D process. It also not that Lasseter has successfully kept an incredibly talented crew around himself (Docter was hired in 1990). The key reason all nine of Pixar’s previous films are in the top 30 moneymaking feature films of all time is they realize there is very little new under the sun. Although they produced the first CGI feature, storywise they didn’t reinvent the wheel. They just made a better one.
Think about it. The Toy Story franchise is basically a buddy flick. Instead of Hope and Cosby, you have Woody and Buzz. It works so well Pixar’s now planning their third chapter in the adventures of the two toys, and Tom Hanks and Tim Allen apparently are returning to play them once again. Last year’s Wall*E, for all its spectacularly unconventional storytelling, is really a 21st Century adaptation of Chaplin classics like Modern Times and City Lights.
At its core, Up is about another stock set of Hollywood characters, the surly curmudgeon forced to team up with the doughy cheeked innocent. It’s a trick that’s worked as far back as King Vidor’s The Champ. That 1931 chestnut earned lead curmudgeon Wallace Beery his one Oscar, and made a child superstar of Jackie Cooper.
This time the curmudgeon is named Carl Fredrickson (Ed Asner). While there’s a bit of Walter Matthau in him, one can easily see he’s based on another famous actor who played mean old men with hearts of gold, the immortal Spencer Tracy.
“Sometimes, at the end of a tough day at work when you’re just so overwhelmed with people and the chaos of the world, I would have this fantasy of being shipwrecked on a desert island in the Pacific,” says Docter. “Bob (co-writer Bob Peterson) and I began playing with that idea and started having some fun thinking about an ‘old man’ character like the ones we love from the George Booth cartoons in The New Yorker, and all those great Spencer Tracy and Walter Matthau type of guys who are grouchy but you still like them. We came up with this image of a floating house held aloft by balloons, and it just seemed to capture what we were after in terms of escaping the world. We quickly realized that the world is really about relationships, and that’s what Carl comes to discover.”
As the commercials plainly show, Carl is about to go on the adventure of his life. He will strap his house to thousands of helium-filled balloons and float off to the wilds of South America, where few if any, humans set foot. Of course, it wouldn’t be a kid and curmudgeon film if it didn’t have a kid. That’s supplied by a young boy named Russell (Roger Nagai). There’s also a dog named Dug who has a collar that translates his thoughts into speech (voiced by Peterson), and a character named Kevin the less said about right now the better. And it wouldn’t be a proper adventure without adversaries, and those come in the form of Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer) and his Pack. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
What is not too well known, is Frederickson is based on another rather infamous old man. His name is Joe Grant, and he was one of Uncle Walt’s legendary Old Men. Grant even worked on Snow White.
“I got to know Joe when he was in his 90s,” Docter recollects. “He was a friend of mine…this great old wise guy. Every time I would show him something we were working on he’d say, ‘What are you giving the audience to take home?’ That was his way of telling me it’s the emotion—the character-based emotions that people are going to remember.”
So what will Docter give us to bring home with Pixar’s 10th feature film? Expect a lot more on that over this week. Suffice it that when all is said and done, and you have gone to see the film, you’ll find it one of the most uplifting experiences in your life.
ANIBOOM TEAMS UP WITH FOXFox Broadcasting Company and 20th Century Fox Television have partnered with the site Aniboom, to launch the Fox-Aniboom Holiday Animation Challenge. This is an animation contest to find the next great Fox holiday TV special. The contest, which kicks off on May 27, 2009, invites talented, creative up-and-coming animators worldwide to enter their original holiday-inspired animated shorts for the opportunity to win cash prizes and a Fox development deal. Submissions should present an original idea for a holiday special and feature the irreverent, edgy, and uniquely Fox animation spirit that has made such shows as The Simpsons, Family Guy and American Dad hits for the network.
“Fox has long been the sole primetime animation powerhouse, and we’re searching for a fresh new animated holiday special that could potentially become an instant classic and maybe even a weekly series,” said President of Fox Broadcasting Company, Kevin Reilly. “By tapping into Aniboom’s community of undiscovered talent, we hope to find the next original hit holiday concept like The Simpson’s ‘Treehouse of Horror’ or A Very Special Family Guy Freakin’ Christmas.’”
“Aniboom is the studio for thousands of talented, passionate and undiscovered animators from over 70 countries around the globe, and every one of them reveres the innovation and creativity of Fox’s animated programming,” said Founder and President of Aniboom, Uri Shinar. “With this competition, Fox and Aniboom will introduce viewers to the next great superstars of animation – and quite likely, a brand new vision of what primetime television programming will be like five years from now.”
The Fox-Aniboom Holiday Animation Challenge is open to animators who have reached the age of majority in their state or country of residence. To be eligible to win, entries should be two to four minutes in length and must be holiday-themed – from Halloween to Thanksgiving to Christmas – or any other holiday observed in the U.S. Animators can submit their shorts online by uploading them directly to the Aniboom website at www.aniboom.com/fox. The contest kicks off at 12:01 am Pacific on May 27, 2009 and the deadline for submission is at 11:59PM PT on August 31, 2009. Viewers can watch and comment on the videos as soon as they are posted. A voting period will take place from September 1 through September 30, in which viewers have the opportunity to rate their favorite submissions. FOX and Aniboom will reveal the five contest finalists on or about November 3, and then announce the grand prize winner in mid-November.
Each of the five finalists will receive a prize of $5,000. A panel comprised of Fox executives will select four of these finalists, while one “Viewer’s Choice” finalist will be chosen based upon the audience response on the contest’s website. The grand prize winner will receive the $5,000 plus an additional $10,000 and a Fox development deal, with the potential to air their winning work on Fox, Fox.com, and other Fox-affiliated websites.
Since its inception, Aniboom has successfully executed many short-form animation contests, whose winners have gone on to create animation for large corporations and media outlets. The Aniboom Awards is an annual short-form animation contest that, in past years, has received over 1,000 video submissions. In March 2008, Aniboom teamed with TBD Records to host the Radiohead Animated Music Video Competition, whose winning submission went on to serve as the music video for the band’s hit “Reckoner” from the “In Rainbows” album.
For complete official rules, eligibility restrictions and other information, please visit www.aniboom.com/Fox.
NEXT COLUMN: More on Pete Docter and Up.